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Thursday August 5th

N.C. House works on COVID-19 legislation, but are they moving fast enough?

<p>The North Carolina General Assembly building in Raleigh, N.C. on Jan. 29, 2020.</p>
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The North Carolina General Assembly building in Raleigh, N.C. on Jan. 29, 2020.

N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) has convened a select committee to begin forming the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. However, some lawmakers and experts have raised concerns that the General Assembly might not be able to act soon enough on some of the state’s most pressing needs.

What do legislators and local leaders say N.C. needs to do?

The House Select Committee on COVID-19 is divided into four working groups: health care, economic support, continuity of state operations and education.

N.C. Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Caswell, Orange), who is a member of the education working group, said his priorities are to improve resources during the virtual learning period for students who have limited access to digital resources, and to ensure students will eventually be able to go back to school before the end of the school year.

“I want kids and teachers to have the chance to get back to stability and to reconnect with each other and kind of settle this really difficult and traumatic period with some good social emotional connection,” Meyer said. “But the second reason is that I want a chance for us to get back to school, to be able to figure out kind of what happened with kids, and what do they need so that we can take care of their needs?”

Both Meyer and N.C. Rep. Verla Insko (D-Orange) said making adjustments to the state unemployment insurance system is crucial, particularly increasing the length benefits can be collected for and making sure independent contractors and gig workers can also collect unemployment insurance.

Insko, who is on the health care working group, said Medicaid expansion is also one of her top priorities. 

“One of the things they are talking about doing instead of doing full Medicaid expansion would be to just make anybody who has this COVID virus to be automatically eligible for Medicaid if you’re uninsured,” Insko said.

Meanwhile, Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle said she thought state laws that regulate how municipal governments must conduct their meetings need to be adapted. Lavelle said expanding Medicaid and broadband internet access would also be helpful at a local level.

What do advocates and experts want?

Mitch Kokai, a senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation, said his organization has come up with a wide variety of policy recommendations for the state. He recommended caution in altering the state unemployment insurance system before funds distributed by the federal government have been allocated.

Instead, Kokai recommended relaxing or removing occupational licensing requirements to allow flexibility for workers.

“Not just in health care but also economically, if we are starting to get to the point where people can go back out and work again, some of them might not be able to go back to the job they had before, but there might be opportunities for them in fields that otherwise are limited by occupational licensing,” Kokai said.

He said he worries that expanding Medicaid would cause benefits to go to people who may not really need it, taking away from other populations.

However, Alexandra Sirota, the director of the Budget & Tax Center at the N.C. Justice Center, said Medicaid expansion was more now important than ever.

“Medicaid is a critical tool, not just in making sure people are healthy, but in times of economic downturn,” Sirota said. “The program works to provide critical support when people lose private health care coverage, when the federal government takes on a greater share of the cost of Medicaid, which helps to stabilize state budgets.”

Sirota also said the is past the point of needing changes to unemployment insurance benefits.

“Prior to this moment, the system had continued to reach too few jobless workers with really too little wage replacement to stabilize household budgets for too short a period of time,” she said.

Patrick Conway, an economics professor at UNC, said these underlying issues refer to the amount of benefits received in the state system, the duration of those benefits and the relatively small number of people who are approved in North Carolina normally, which is just 10 percent.

Conway said Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive actions to relax some of the rules and regulations for unemployment insurance were helpful, but more needs to be done. He said one issue is that the federal government is proportionally increasing aid based on what the state already has in place.

“If we are going to take appropriate advantage of the funds that are being made available by the federal government, we should be providing the type of benefits that are on average true throughout the country rather than the relatively small maximum payment of $350 and the relatively small maximum duration of 12 weeks,” Conway said.

Conway said he preferred to think of these measures not as stimulus measures, but as emergency relief measures for those who are not allowed to work because of social distancing.

Will the General Assembly be able to act in time?

Conway, along with Meyer and Insko, worry about the General Assembly's ability to put in place such emergency measures.

He said many of the changes he thinks are necessary are not ones that can be made by the governor via an executive order, but must be passed by the General Assembly.

Moore's order to establish the committee, its purpose is to create productive, bipartisan conversations to prepare for any legislative sessions to respond to the current crisis. The order says drafting formal reports or legislation is not the primary purpose of the committee. 

No laws can actually be passed until the Senate returns to session on April 28, but Insko said she thinks the General Assembly needs to come back into session for a week before April 28 to pass legislation.

Meyer said N.C. Sen. President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R- Caswell, Rockingham, Stokes, Surry) needs to act as well. He said the N.C. Senate turned down an offer by the House to run joint committees. 

“We haven't seen Sen. Berger be willing to lift a finger yet to do anything on this crisis," Meyer said. "He hasn't appointed any committees, he hasn't identified any solutions. He hasn't made it clear whether we'll come back for a special session and do anything."

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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